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Inferno set to defend Clarkson Cup title in 2017

The easy part's over. Now, it's a matter of keeping the throne.

With the announcement of their official 26-player roster earlier this week, the Calgary Inferno are heading into the 2016-17 season with a new objective: to solidify their place as the elite team in the CWHL.

The Inferno earned that title with their commanding 8-3 win in the Clarkson Cup Final over Les Canadiennes de Montreal in March. The romp came as a surprise not just to Les Canadiennes (who had been the team to beat heading into the Final), but to many who had been watching both teams all season long. But it's hard to bet against a team as chock-full of Olympians as the Inferno is, and that experience and talent came together at the perfect time.

Now, the Inferno are hoping to replicate that this season, and with not much different of a look in the roster than in 2015-16 (though definitely some differences in the front office -- more on that to come on M&G). Here's the lineup (rookies/newcomers in italics):

(*indicates a 2016 CWHL Draft pick)

Forwards:

Bailey Bram

Jessica Campbell

Sarah Davis

Brittany Esposito

Haley Irwin

Brianne Jenner

Rebecca Johnston

Elana Lovell

Jillian Saulnier

Blayre Turnbull

Louise Warren

Hayley Wickenheiser

Iya Gavrilova*

Laura Dostaler

With the retirement of two of the Inferno's longest-tenured forwards (Jenna Cunningham and Kelsey Webster) comes the (hopeful!) return of an elite Olympian in Haley Irwin and the arrival of another promising rookie, Iya Gavrilova, who has a seasoned background in North American women's hockey. Overall, this is the position that has seen the least turnover, even with the two departures. This means everyone is back together, this time with valuable playoff experience -- and with the firepower present in Lovell, Turnbull, Johnston et al, that could mean trouble for opposing goaltenders.

Defense:

Hayleigh Cudmore

Erica Kromm

Brigette Lacquette

Meaghan Mikkelson

Jacquie Pierri

Aina Takeuchi

Kaitlyn Gosling*

Akane Hosoyamada*

Hosoyamada and Gosling join the defensive corps that showed their best side in the first round of the Clarkson Cup playoffs against Brampton, and then again during the Final. Gosling is a little more offensive-minded, Hosoyamada more stay-at-home, but both can help shore up some of the holes that showed in Calgary's blueline during the regular season, helping them establish long-term dominance. Meanwhile, some of the Inferno's strongest blueliners are also back, including Mikkelson and Lacquette.

Goaltenders:

Delayne Brian

Genevieve Lacasse

Emerance Maschmeyer*

If there were room at all for the Inferno to upgrade, it would have been in net -- and upgrade they did. Kathy Desjardins did an admirable job in her comeback season last year, but it's no secret that there are two very big additions to the roster this year. Two Canadian National Team products, one earning her place as a breakout star (Maschmeyer) and the other facing the most rubber in the CW last season (Lacasse), will certainly make the job harder for both opponents and Delayne Brian, who played her best hockey in the Clarkson Cup Final but still needs consistency during the season. Maschmeyer was an expected newcomer, but Lacasse was traded to Calgary in the tail end of the trade that sent Tara Watchorn to Boston back in 2014. Lacasse's visa to play in Boston prohibited her from working while she played for the Blades; being back in Calgary ensures her a paying job as well as an opportunity to continue playing semi-pro hockey and stay in shape for international play, as well as putting her with plenty of her National teammates.

Conclusion:

Overall, the Inferno did wisely to fill in the gaps where necessary, but not change the general makeup of the squad. There's really no reason to; this team won the Clarkson Cup with most of the pieces it has in place now. With now three incredible goaltenders, it'll be a task for opponents to score; meanwhile, the offense is just as potent and (if everyone is healthy) will be the same force that overwhelmed Montreal in March. Defensively, last year was a struggle if only because two blueliners joined the team midway through the season; now, Lacquette and Mikkelson have half a season and training camp under their belts, making for a better transition process into the season. Consensus? On paper at least, this looks to be another scorching year for the Inferno -- and a good bet for them to at least be, once again, top three in the league.

The Inferno start the season at home against Brampton, Saturday at 7:45 p.m. at Winsport A and Sunday at 9:15 a.m. at the Calgary Stampede Corral. All times MDT. More information on game streaming for those outside Calgary will be provided soon.

(For more info on the draft picks selected to the roster, check out my draft recap from August 24.)